A Gushy Encomium upon Emma Kirkby, DBE

The Great DameAfter nearly twenty years of distant adulation, I finally got to hear Emma Kirkby live in concert last week—and it was very much worth the wait.  [Worth it for me, that is–I didn’t take the liberty of asking Dame Emma how it was for her…]

My very first girlfriend at university was a nice girl who quite closely resembled Kirkby, and who was also a light-voiced soprano.  She broke my boyish heart within a few chaste weeks.  Eheu!

This, if anything, exacerbated my “pash” for Miss Kirkby.  She was now not only the great unavailable beauty and goddess of early song–she had also become the emblem of my Paradise Lost. 

But above all, her clear glassy voice, especially as exercised in  the early repertoire with which she had become most closely associated, was the purest enchantment to my soppy ears.  I first came to revere John Dowland as chanted by her–a “deep and meaningful” musical engagement that has by far outlasted any of my romantic ones.  She and Dowland have on countless occasions helped me to grieve, or to take my ease, or to recharge, or to rejoice, or to contemplate (and not just my own navel, either…); and they have together provided a substantial portion of the  soundtrack to my life.   I’m enormously grateful for all that.

So, finally to hear Dame Emma live, in an ancient Scottish kirk, singing baroque cantatas and in the most splendid voice was, well,  magical.  I had booked an unreserved seat, there being no numbered ones left, and managed to find one at the end of a row in the north aisle.  Sneakily, and on the pretext of not wishing to spoil the view of the lady seated immediately behind me, I moved the rush-bottomed chair round the pier to face the stage more directly, although there was no chance of a clear view of the Great Dame herself from any position in that aisle. 

A bewhiskered usher soon approached (and reproached) me, burring in a voice straight out of Dr. Finlay’s Casebook: “Now, this is grand, isn’t it?  But I’m tryin’ to keep the passage clear…”  I was forced into a partial retreat (of perhaps 20 degrees or so) around the pier.  Thus was my first experience of the celestial voice a blind one.  I saw Dame Emma only after she had sung the first of the cantatas of the evening, and only then because I stood to applaud her, using the opportunity to cross the aisle in doing so. 

I repaired briefly to the local tavern for some refreshment at the interval (only buying an ale at all to avoid the discourtesy of making free with the landlord’s facilities without recompense), determined upon my return somehow to command a better view in the second half.  I had not waited a score of years to be in her presence only to have her remain as invisible to me as if I had stayed at home with my well-worn discs.  So, spotting an as-yet unreproached old gent who had moved his unreserved seat into the north transept, next the reserved stalls, I followed suit and availed myself of a deliciously uninterrupted view of the Dame’s music stand and, in time, of the Dame herself.

Oh, but she was beautiful, and expressive, and elegant, and charming—and yes, dear Seraphic, her autumnal hair was big!  She sang Bach’s Ich habe genug most affectingly, and I shared the narrator’s deep satisfaction in the fulfilment of a long-held desire.  I clapped my tingly hands raw, and only just managed to gulp back a wild roar of Brava! as Dame Emma took her final bow (after favouring us with an encore – Lascia ch’io pianga ).  As she left the platform for the last time, the elderly gent in front turned to me jovially and said, “Well, you certainly gave her a good clap!”  My elation prevented me at the time from realising that this was a kind way  of saying, “You just about deafened us with your paw-thumping!”

If you are by any chance reading this soppy old tommyrot, dear Dame Emma, I was the wild-eyed, black-moleskin-suited loon standing in the north aisle of the kirk, grinning athletically and beating my palms noisily together in dopey joy.  I am, I am told, quite harmless.  A thousand thank-yous.